Affluence and Effluence

Most days this April, I sloshed through puddles on the streets of London, trying to avoid being splashed by the buses with the big signs chastising me to save water, because “we are in a drought.”

Having lived in California, I understand that a month of record rainfall does not make up for a long, ground-hardening drought. From knowing the history of London however, I also appreciate that the current water shortage cannot be put entirely down to the whims of the heavens.

After the war, an enormous amount of council housing was built in the UK. Among the common designs was to have a mews running along the backs of a long row of small, identical houses (some single-family dwellings, some divided into flats). The back doors didn’t open directly onto the mews; rather the rearward space was allotted for smaller structures: Toilets.

Frequently several toilets were clustered to take advantage of a shared water tank on the roof. The tank was open on top so as to catch the rainwater that would be used to flush the privy (through the force of gravity) when the chain was pulled by the user. While it would be wrong to romanticize the comforts of outdoor water closets, it is striking nonetheless that as the population accrued a level of wealth that made external lavatories unthinkable, it also made a decision that countless millions of gallons of rain water were not valuable enough to capture for productive use.


Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Affluence and Effluence”

  1. Keith, I think that for American readers (including me) you’ll have to explain what “mews” means (and maybe provide an image of the meaning you intend, since OED gives several and they’re unhelpfully different from one another). I think the idea is basically “a row of stables, often later turned into row houses or other narrow buildings”–and this image implies as much (–but I’m not completely sure. In saying this I realize, to my chagrin, that I’m not as good at looking things up as I think I am. I must have encountered the word “mews” hundreds of times in English literature, without ever bothering to find out what the word I was reading really meant.

    Of course, if I grasp your point correctly this is all a red herring (though not one flushed down the toilet I hope). The point is not that the houses didn’t face the mews (whatever those are). It’s that there used to be outdoor privies for which there were cisterns–but England regrettably failed to keep the cisterns when it ditched the privies. Given that point, I suspect that it applies to lots of places other than England as well, even places that were built without a reliance on horse transportation and therefore without mews.

    However, I think there’s something you leave out. Rainwater can be pretty dirty–e.g. polluted by London smog, which I understand was not a small matter–and still be perfectly acceptable for flushing outdoor toilets. Making urban cistern water pure enough to drink must surely be a different matter, and a costlier one. That said, one could use it as “gray water” for irrigating plants and so on; perhaps that’s what you meant by “productive use” (broader than “for drinking”).

    1. Hello Andy,

      If you want to see the outdoor toilet set up, why not have the fun of watching this Python clip (around 2:20 are the toilets)

      Mews in this case just means back alley — lots of American neighborhoods have a (usually unpaved) road behind all the houses which people use to get in and out of their rearward facing garages. Such things are often called “mews” here, and sometimes at the end there will be a little arch or sign announcing the name of the housing development e.g., “Pembroke Mews”. Mews doesn’t always mean this…in Edinburgh for example it’s sometimes a staircase between buildings or a tunnel leading to a courtyard.

      As for the water, yes of course it’s grey and I wasn’t proposing people bath in it or drink it. But we have a hose pipe ban in the UK now…people should be able to water their vegetables and flowers with stored rainwater in addition to using it to flush toilets.

      1. Keith: “But we have a hose pipe ban in the UK now…”

        Let’s be precise. There’s a hosepipe ban in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are not lacking in water. 🙂

        In fact, there has been talk about Scotland and Wales exporting water to their suffering English neighbors.

        (More seriously, Scottish Water — the public corporation that provides water and sewage services to all of Scotland — does encourage people to have water butts in their gardens to water the aforementioned vegetables and flowers. Sadly, the incentives are all wrong: ordering a water butt costs you money, while you get tap water essentially at a flat rate — it is paid through the Council Tax.)

        1. “Let’s be precise. There’s a hosepipe ban in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are not lacking in water”

          I am most fully rebuked : )

          1. I am just repaying the kindness the locals have shown to me when they keep explaining in loving detail every single difference between Scotland and England. I figured I should not be the only person to su…benefit from such information. (Though I am still not sure why Scotland needs three different banks issuing three differently styled kinds of banknotes when England is doing fine with just a single bank.)

          2. I heard a joke today you can use:

            Q: What is the definition of a Yorkshireman?

            A: A Scotsman stripped of his generosity.

  2. This is rather off-point, but rainwater harvesting isn’t always a good idea, and not just because rainwater can be rather dirty (to our refined tastes, anyway).

    Here in the desert southwest, harvesting rainwater in a watershed can get you in trouble with the authorities. Some friends of mine who live near Santa Fe told me they got a cease-and-desist order from the State Engineer when it was noticed that they had barrels collecting runoff from their roof. They used the water to irrigate their garden and plantings. Apparently rainwater harvesting has had a small (but noticeable) impact in the Pecos watershed.

  3. You can probably translate “mews” into American as “alley”. Basically, they designed subsidized housing so that when nature called your had to go out your front door, down the block, around the corner, then back along the alley, to the toilet. Then, you had to go back out, up the alley, around the corner, down the block and back in through your front door. George Orwell used this as an example of England’s contempt for the working class. It would be spoiling the undeserving to provide a back door to get to the toilet, or better yet, provide indoor plumbing, just as if they were real people. I’ll bet the folks living in these places couldn’t wait to get rid of such a demeaning scheme.

    I suppose it might be nice to have kept the cisterns, but rainwater is “gray water” at best. It’s not healthy drinking or washing water. I suppose it might have been nice to use collected rain water for flushing toilets and watering gardens, but that requires a suitable gray water plumbing system, and that for each household.

    1. OK, but my brother set up just such a rooftop rainwater collection system in a few hours with a few bucks’ worth of plastic pipe and two heavy-duty empty plastic grease-collection barrels that he got free from restaurants.

      A “suitable gray water plumbing system” just … ain’t that complicated.

      And is super-cheap. Like, on the order of two servings of fast food.

    2. I actually remembered that bit from Orwell without (consciously) remembering having looked up “mews.” I guess my mind, while reading, understood the larger story Orwell was describing and grokked “alley” for “mews” without remembering the latter word. Makes me feel better about not breaking out the OED.

  4. Whoever sells the chemicals and other supplies used to purify the water we pump through our toilets will be honked if we start using free roof water to flush. I’m sure we can think up a perfectly reasonable explanation for a law forbidding the practice.

    1. No law, except it’s not usually cost effective.
      Water is cheap,
      Installing plumbing is expensive.

      1. For drinking water, sure. A rooftop collection system for irrigation water is so cheap and easy, it’s like falling off a log (literally — due to gravity).

        See my earlier comment above. Expense is clearly not an excuse. Neither is technical ease. My goodness.

    2. We don’t need potable water to flush toilets with. And our waste is still going into the sewage system and will still have to be kept out of the drinking & bathing water. So the purifiers shouldn’t mind.

  5. From my memories of England, 40 days and 40 nights of rain is considered a drought.

    1. It depends on where in the UK you are. The west coast of England (and Great Britain in general) has high levels of precipitation, but in the east it can be fairly dry; dryer than in many parts of continental Europe, in fact. For example, London’s annual precipitation levels are about the same as those of Berlin (both around 600 mm) and less than those of Rome (around 800 mm).

  6. The big trick for greywater systems is ensuring segregation. For irrigating plants, not such a big deal, because the barrel/butt is physically separate from the rest of the house and its plumbing. For flushing toilets, a big deal because the day is going to come when you need to flush and there’s no water in the cistern. And anything other than an antisiphon hose refilling said cistern runs a risk of getting the soot and leaves and pigeon poop into the drinking lines. (Yes, that risk can be mitigated by good design and implementation. That and $4.50 will get you a latte.)

    Of course, you could have a toilet that was cistern-only and not for use otherwise, but I wonder how long it would take for the savings to offset the extra construction and manufacturing costs…

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